Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Washington Redskins coaching staff wasn’t nearly as worried as the team’s fans Sunday night when running back Clinton Portis lay prone on the field at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati.

And not just because they already knew Portis probably wouldn’t need surgery on his partially dislocated left shoulder. They just know backup Ladell Betts is more than an adequate replacement.

“I don’t know if people realize what a quality player Ladell is,” new associate head coach Al Saunders said. “He’s a three-dimensional player. He runs the ball, he can catch it and he can block well enough to be successful. I knew he was good but not this good. Ladell deserves to play, and we’ve got to find a way to get him on the field and not just as a backup to Clinton.”

Portis’ injury solves that problem for the rest of the preseason. But even when Portis — who set the team record with 1,516 yards rushing last season — returns, the Redskins see a larger role for Betts this season.

Betts didn’t test his sore hamstring against the Bengals, but he is expected to practice today.

“Ladell has shown he can be a front-line runner,” said running backs coach Earnest Byner, who ran for Washington’s last Super Bowl champions in the 1991 season. “He brings the ability to change the rhythm of the game with his size and his power.”

Although Betts and Portis are both listed at 5-foot-10 and weigh within 10 pounds of each other, they have contrasting running styles. Betts usually pounds away inside, while Portis bounces around the corner of the line.

“I’m not always flashy or pretty, but I’m effective,” Betts said. “I’m a hard runner. I don’t have fear of contact. I’ll slam the ball in there. Not to say Clinton doesn’t do all those things, but people think of him as more of a home run hitter. He’s so fast that if the defense gives him a crease, he can go all the way.”

Betts, a second-round pick out of Iowa in 2002, returned a kickoff for a touchdown last season at Tampa Bay but hasn’t been given many opportunities on offense.

Stephen Davis was in his fourth year as a No. 1 back when Betts arrived. When Davis left after that season, newcomer Trung Canidate was named the starter. But through seven games, Betts had more carries (66) in Steve Spurrier’s pass-happy offense.

However, Betts fractured his left forearm the next week and missed all but one game the rest of the season. In 2004, new coach Joe Gibbs acquired Portis from Denver, and Betts became an afterthought again. He had 179 carries compared to Portis’ 695 during the past two seasons.

“I believe I’ve gotten a fair shot to prove what I can do,” said Betts, who turns 27 this month and will be a free agent in March. “I was on my way to establishing myself when I broke my arm. I believe I’ve earned the coaches’ trust over the last couple of years. When they first got here, I believe they just saw me as a third-down back. I had to show them that I could run the ball as well.”

That he has. But even though Gibbs says Betts is important to the team, his carries don’t figure to change much once Portis heals.

Byner said Portis and Betts will play together at times, in part to take advantage of Betts’ hands, which the assistant coach said are among the best on the team.

“The backs do catch the ball a lot in this offense,” Betts said. “Clinton’s our No. 1 back, but there’s always room for two backs. You don’t want to run him into the ground, especially if you have another guy capable of getting yards. I like to think we keep the defense off-balance because we have two totally different styles. Hopefully coach Saunders will give me the ball in different situations, allow me to play more and utilize my talents.”

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